After issuing a trio of EPs since 2012 — originally on old school cassettes — and a live album back in January, the current incarnation of Cincinnati’s Old City concluded it was time for a proper full-length release.
In the retelling, though, the recording of Old City’s eponymous new album takes on the air of Sir Edmund Hillary’s because-it-was-there-ism.
“What made us decide to do a full-length?” queries drummer Dave Cupp from his side of the booth at MOTR Pub, where he also bartends. “I forget.”
“I think because we hadn’t done it yet,” guitarist/vocalist Sammy McKee deadpans. “Because it was supposed to happen.”
The same thing could easily be said about Old City itself. Back in 2012, McKee was recording with Bitter Airplane when he began exploring song ideas he’d been batting around that didn’t fit the band’s profile. That experimental Electronic material led to McKee’s first solo gig under a new moniker, setting the stage for McKee’s first three solo Old City EPs.
“I had a (solo) show and it was a complete disaster,” McKee says with a laugh. “Everybody else thought it was OK, but I hated it.”
Soon after McKee’s self-perceived catastrophe, he invited Cupp (Man Halen, Caterpillar Tracks) to join him after years of talking about playing together; Cupp had recorded McKee’s old band, view-finder. Almost immediately, McKee felt the music’s quality improved exponentially as it veered toward a Post Punk direction, solidifying Old City’s sound and status with one simple stroke.
“We pulled the trigger and it just instantly became a band at that point,” McKee says. “Bitter Airplane stopped playing and this was the focus.”
Old City operated as a duo until veteran multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Molnar was installed as the band’s bassist.
“Gabe had to step aside for awhile and Robyn Roth filled in,” Cupp says. “She’s exclusively on side one (of the vinyl-only release of the self-titled full-length, which comes with a download code); it’s all her stuff.”
Knife the Symphony/Theraphosa bassist Roth, who also contributed the album’s fantastic cover art, covered for Molnar live and at Steve Wethington’s New Fidelity Studios back in December when Old City did its first weekend session for the album.
Neither Roth not Molnar — who divides his time between Old City, Sometimes and Little Lights — were available in March when the band hit New Fidelity for a second weekend session to complete the album, so McKee and The Sweep’s Nic Powers took over four-string duties.
This year has been particularly productive for Old City. Besides work on the new full-length, the band’s nine-track live album, Old City/Live/MOTR (now available at oldcityusa.bandcamp.com; listen to a track below), came out earlier in the year and a physical CD compiling the material on the three out-of-print cassette EPs was also pressed. The standard Rock critic observation is that a self-titled album often indicates the material on the release is what the band feels is particularly representative of its lyrical philosophies and sonic identity. McKee and Cupp admit that holds true for Old City, at least to a certain extent.
Live version of Old City's "Hallo," the lead-off track from its debut:
“I think it’s like a graduation kind of thing,” McKee says. “We’ve worked to get to this point and now we want to go further.”
“It’s the first thing we’ve done that we really want to get out there,” Cupp concurs. “We’re really proud of it. We play better than we ever have on this record, and we played with a lot of great musicians. We’ve been transitioning away from the ‘Sammy McKee solo project’ and now this is kind of the band record. We just feel like it sounds like us as a band.”
While the guests on Old City — Powers on bass and backing vocals, Wethington on synthesizer, violinist Brianne Maier, stylophonist Jacob David Levin and backing vocalist Elle Crash — certainly provide a great deal of texture to the album, it is the powerful, collaborative core of McKee and Cupp that constitutes the band’s jackhammer heart and howling soul.
“It’s not like I bring in an idea and it has to be this way,” McKee says. “I bring in ideas, or Gabe does now, and Robyn had one for the record, and we work on them together.”
“They come together really quickly,” Cupp says. “When Sammy starts playing, I kind of know what he wants. We’re very connected that way.”
The advance feedback on Old City’s new album has been overwhelmingly positive, with glowing references to Sonic Youth, Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr., Poster Children, Polvo, Built to Spill, Guided By Voices and local favorites Wussy. It’s conceivable that McKee’s tremulous upper-register voice in this context may be more akin to Chuck Cleaver’s work in Ass Ponys.
“Chuck was a huge influence on me, not necessarily the music but just seeing The Ass Ponys play back then at (popular live club Sudsy Malone’s),” McKee says. “They were so in control of what they were doing and that really rubbed off on me big time, them and the Wolverton Brothers. How they went about their business and carried themselves and were the best at what they did. Anytime anyone mentions any of those people in relation to anything I do is a huge compliment to me.”
The big headline is that Molnar has returned to Old City for the foreseeable future and with his reintegration the trio seems poised to take their visceral Post Rock presentation to the next level.
“Gabe’s back with us all the time and we’re writing a lot together,” McKee says. “We’re real excited about that.”
“We’ve already got about five ideas ready to go, and Sammy’s sick of this stuff, so …” Cupp says, tongue firmly in cheek. “But he is in a hurry to get this behind us and start working on the next thing.”
Although they joke about it, Old City is clearly thinking into the future. After the release show this weekend, the band will play a few scattered local dates, preferring to concentrate on out-of-town markets before returning in December to begin work on a second album.
“I always look to the next thing,” McKee says.
OLD CITY performs Saturday, Aug. 23, at Southgate House Revival (southgatehouse.com). For more on the band, visit facebook.com/oldcitycincinnati.